Cover 3 is a weekly feature column written by PewterReport.com’s Tampa Bay Bucs beat writer Trevor Sikkema published every Tuesday. The column, as its name suggests, comes in three phases: a statistical observation, an in-depth film breakdown, and a “this or that” segment where the writer asks the reader to chose between two options.
Sikkema’s Stat of the Week
Being a rookie in the NFL is tough enough as it is. You’re at a stage where you’re actively living your dream, knowing you really only get one shot at it. That, in itself, is a ton of pressure. Now throw in the fact that you’re a starter, or an expected starter. That means there’s no time to sit back and acclimate yourself to your new surroundings; you have to contribute right away. Then, on top of all that, throw some draft position hype in there, too – being selected at a high position.
There you have Bucs inside linebacker Devin White.
When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected White at No. 5 overall in the 2019 NFL Draft, they made him the first off-ball (meaning non-pass rushing) linebacker to go Top 5 since the Seattle Seahawks drafted Aaron Curry at No. 4 in 2009 – which didn’t end up being a good pick. Those Top 5 selections are usually reserved for pass rushers and shut down corners, so the Bucs really were taking a risk when it came to draft value with the guy they selected. But they believed that, though it isn’t a position often prioritized that high, the player and the person they were getting with that pick would make it worth it.
White’s time in Tampa Bay got off to a slow start. He showed flashes of play-making ability in training camp, but when regular season speed set in, he, like any rookie, was a bit overwhelmed. Yet the coaching staff and the players around him continued to tell us that White would be special.
Fast forward to Week 14 and we’re really starting to see that.
Bucs ILB Devin White – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
White injured his knee in Week 2 at Carolina and was forced to miss three games because of it. When he returned, he did so with a brace on his knee. This really limited what White was able to do, especially as a player whose game is built around his speed. But in Week 10 against the Arizona Cardinals, White was finally healthy enough to shed that knee brace and he’s been on a tear ever since. So much so that there’s still a chance he can win the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year award.
Unfortunately for White, the trends of the award, as of late, are stacked against him as a linebacker. Colts linebacker Darius Leonard did win the award last year, but Leonard was the first linebacker to win the award since Carolina’s Luke Kuechly won it in 2012. However, there is hope in the foundation of the award, as it was dominated by off-ball linebackers for most of the early 2000s. From 2000-2009, eight of the 10 defensive rookie of the years were off-ball linebackers. Leonard and White winning it back-to-back as linebackers would be the first for the position since New England’s Jerod Mayo and Houston’s Brian Cushing back in 2008 and 2009, respectively.
There is a formula for linebackers winning the award, but that formula isn’t going to be kind to White, especially after missing three games in the early stages of the season. Though you could point to the fact that there was a linebacker winner just last year, there are stats we know the voters like to see that White just doesn’t have.
First and foremost, this award, as does the Defensive Player of the Year ward, will lean towards players who get sacks and takeaways. Over the last five years, all five D.P.O.Y. award winners were defensive linemen who racked up the sacks. Sacks, tackles for loss and takeaways such as interceptions and forced fumbled clearly hold the most weight when it comes to swaying the voters in your favor. Because defensive linemen have a better chance at getting those numbers, they usually are the front-runners to win the award, both NFL Defensive Player of the Year and NFL Rookie of the Year honors.
But Leonard and Kuechly did capture the crown, even over some good pass rushers, and as stated before the award was heavily dominated by the linebacker position in years past. The reason for this, though, especially as of late, is the combined tackle total. In both years that Leonard and Kuechly won D.R.O.Y., both of them led the NFL in combined tackles – Leonard had 163 and Kuechly had 165. Unfortunately for White, he isn’t going to get close, as White has just 69 combined tackles through nine games.
Recently White has upped his takeaway impact, grabbing his first career interception and recovering a fumble to score a defensive touchdown. But unless he really continues to take off in those categories over the last four games, even those stats don’t measure up to Leonard’s and Kuechly’s compared to the years those guys won. Leonard had two interceptions, four forced fumbles, seven sacks and 12 tackles for loss when he won; and Kuechly had two interceptions, three fumble recoveries and only one sack, but 12 tackles for loss in his year.
White isn’t going up against those guys to win the award this year, but he does have some fierce competition. The front runner for D.R.O.Y. right now is likely San Francisco 49ers pass rusher Nick Bosa. Bosa’s eight sacks, 14 tackles for loss, interception and forced fumble put him on track to be the favorite for the award as a pass rusher. Jacksonville’s outside linebacker Josh Allen has nine sacks and two forced fumbles, too.
And outside of Bosa and Allen, White might not even be the best off-the-ball linebacker to choose from, which would really hurt his case. Pittsburgh Steelers’ linebacker Devin Bush has 86 combined tackles in 12 games played, and he has two interceptions, one sack, one forced fumble and six tackles for loss.
Due to the missed time, White’s stats aren’t likely to measure up with the likes of Bosa, Allen and Bush by the time the regular season comes to a close. But stats aren’t the only way to judge a player.
Let’s take a look at White’s film on the next page to see if his performances deserves to boost his D.R.O.Y chances more than his numbers alone.
Trevor Sikkema is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat reporter and NFL Draft analyst for PewterReport.com. Sikkema, an alumnus of the University of Florida, has covered both college and professional football for much of his career. As a native of the Sunshine State, when he's not buried in social media, Sikkema can be found out and active, attempting to be the best athlete he never was. Sikkema can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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